Foraging row over the heath

Georgia Graham

IT is the cheapest way to get your hands on the new must-have ingredients for recipes from the world’s top restaurants.

But the new trend of foraging for your supper has sparked a row over its effect on the precious biodiversity of Hampstead Heath.

Rene Redzepi, owner of the world’s best restaurant according to the respected San Pellegrino awards, chose Hampstead Heath as the perfect place to launch his new cookbook for foraged food last Wednesday (November 10).

While the 31-year-old aimed to celebrate the diversity of wild food available in London’s largest public open space the Dane’s enthusiasm and publicity has sparked complaints from local Heath enthusiasts who say foraging levels will soon become ‘unsustainable.’

Jeremy Wright, one of the organisers of the Ecology and Conservation Studies Society at Birkbeck, told the Ham&High: “When you are in the countryside you probably have 2,000 square metres and no people around, so it is perfectly possible for you to find food, but it’s just not appropriate for the Heath.

“On the Heath we have just 800 acres and eight million visitors a year. If just one in a thousand people decided to pick funghi or other plants, that would be 8,000 foraging trips a year.

Most Read

“The other day I saw a woman leaving the Heath with two large hessian bags filled with edible leaves and nettles. The issue is that foraging on that level is unsustainable. If everything is picked then they won’t have a chance to re-seed and grow again.

“We are at a point where, if it carries on, we could see serious species loss on Hampstead Heath – particularly with the fungi.”

Mr Redzepi, head chef of Copenhagen restaurant Noma, spent the morning foraging the Heath with a group of other chefs.

They were looking for Wood Avens which have a clove like flavour; nettles which can be used in raw nettle pesto and berries from the Wild Service Tree which have the taste of tamarind or raisins.

However local foragers have criticised him for making foraging appealing as a business rather than an individual past-time.

Tony Edwards, an amateur forager who lives next to the Heath, said: “It is wrong that celebrity chefs are being interviewed as professional men, as chefs, about foraging when it is illegal to forage Hampstead Heath for commercial gain.

“The law is very clear on that point – the Theft Act 1978 says it is illegal to collect any plant or fungi for commercial purposes without the landowner’s permission.

“He will encourage people to collect from the Heath in huge amounts and sell their finds to top London restaurants.”

Mr Redzepi’s guide and author of The Forager Handbook, Miles Irving, have however hit back at the accusations of over-foraging as “rubbish”.

Mr Irving said: “Most of the plants and the grasses on the Heath are very durable and tough – that is why they have survived. They are not going to be reduced by a few people picking them.

“The fungi remain unaffected under the ground and will grow back.”

Natalie Dunbar, a spokeswoman who organised the book launch with Mr Redzepi, said: “We were not picking or taking anything from Hampstead Heath on the day. If anything it was an educational day.

“Chefs are going to forage whatever we do or say so it is good to offer them some guidance about how to do it properly.

“In many ways encouraging foraging on the Heath encourages tourism and visitor numbers – it can only be a good thing.”